3 “Listen to this! Behold, the sower went out to sow; 4 as he was sowing, some seed fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Other seed fell on the rocky ground where it did not have much soil; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil. 6 And after the sun had risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away.7 Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. 8 Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.” 9 And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear, [a]let him hear.”
- Mark 4:3-9
The story of the sower is a very well known parable that Jesus told. And although there are many interpretations, I have hardly come across one that emphasizes the model of grace and patience within this passage. In this short article I argue that much can be taken away from this parable about the grace and patience of God. It stands as a great example of the grace of Christ and the patience he practiced during His ministry. Once we dig in, we begin to see a model of how we, as believers, ought to bring the gospel to the world: with grace and patience.
In ancient times, the method of planting went like this: when a sower went out to sow his seed, he would take the raw seeds and toss them onto the bare ground. Throwing them from place to place, the seeds would be strewn. After the seed had been spread, the farmer would then plow the ground so that the seeds would be covered with soil. Then when the rains came, the seeds would be watered all the same, and the ones in good soil would germinate, take root, and grow to be a part of the fruitful harvest for the farmer. What I find so interesting about this parable is that the farmer could not possibly tell which seed fell on fertile or sterile ground. The good and bad ground could only be identified when it was time for the harvest.
In 1st Corinthians 3:6, Paul tries to straighten up a misunderstanding being debated by the Corinthians. It seems that some of the Corinthians were at odds with the different schools of thought. They apparently thought that Apollos and Paul were teaching two different types of Christianity, and that there was a distinction between the two schools of thought. But Paul informs them that both him and Apollos were mere workers for the Lord – they were merely humans who brought the real message, the truth on which they agreed: Christ crucified and resurrected.
5 What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. 7 So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. 8 Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own [b]reward according to his own labor.
– 1st Corinthians 3:5-8 (NASB)
This excerpt from 1st Corinthians shows us that each and every one has a hand in the different stages of the harvest. Paul here says that he planted the seeds, but then Apollos watered them – and ultimately God caused the growth. We are often not asked by God to be there for someone every single step of the way. God is the only one that is expected to be there for someone every step of the way, aiding the growth and health of the sprouting and growing seed. For some this is a big relief because the thought of having such an influence over someone’s moral decisions would seem to be a never-ending battle, and therefore a burden. But for others, the fact that we cannot be there to influence others’ moral decisions is a disappointment. Call it “too much” love – call it what you will; it is a simple fact that some people just want to influence the moral decisions of others because they feel that they know what the other person ought to do. But this is not in line with what this parable tells us. In fact, it simply tells us to spread the seeds, and then let the spirit work. It tells us to bring the gospel, and then allow Christ to work in the lives of the areas we just sowed.
As Americans we suffer from individuality. It runs rampant throughout our churches and in our lives. It is this attitude that we know what’s best for us, but not only that, we also sometimes think we know what is best for others. We tend to be a little more gracious toward ourselves – minimizing our downfalls and shortcomings, and then being a little less gracious toward those who do not seem to see it our way. Although this is what we could consider the norm, Scripture tells us to act differently. Scripture tells us to be a living sacrifice – literally and figuratively – to allot the grace to others that Christ allotted to us on the cross – even if that grace would come in the form of giving up our very own lives.
Perhaps one of the best examples of the misuse of our assertiveness can be found in the story of Job. After Job’s situation had deteriorated, his wife and three friends weighed in. His wife simply told him to curse God and die, and his friends advised him that his suffering was because he was being punished by God. But none of their advice was right – Job knew this from the start. In fact, Job’s naysayers should have just let it alone and allowed Job to work it out with God. They should have just set still and allowed God to work.
This is what we, as American Christians, face in such a politically charged atmosphere: the temptation to step in and try to turn God’s time table into our own time table – whether this be concerning fellow Christians or those outside of the church. Whoever it is directed toward, we have to stop it. We have to shift our focus to ministering to others without trying to forcefully convert them or persuade them to do things according to our own moral convictions – we have to allow the spirit to work. We have to give up the heretical thought that being a follower of Christ can be reduced down to following a list of stagnant, strict laws, and allow it to become what it actually is: a living, growing community of servants focused on exemplifying the love of God. Like the sower that plants the seed and allows another to water, we have to stop trying to create convictions we have for other people’s actions. Otherwise we are manufacturing a false religion, and therefore making a mockery of the God we very much love.
I agree that it sounds scary. If we were to be honest, some questions we’d ask would be: wouldn’t this mean that we should just give up on telling people when they’re wrong; and if we can’t tell them their wrong, then how will they hear the gospel message? I assure you that this is not the end of the line. The world will hear the gospel of Jesus Christ more so through our actions than the words we speak. John 13:35 says: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Thomas Jay Oord, professor of theology, defines love this way: “To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.” Love is a verb, as John Mayer once put it. But most importantly, love intentionally seeks to promote the overall well-being of others. And it remains that the well-being of another person can be best found in what God is asking them to do, and not what we feel like they should be doing.
I realize that it takes a lot of faith on our part to know that the spirit will convict without our extra oompf in convicting others. But we all can’t always be the ones that are watering and planting – some of us need to water and some of us need to plant, to do both is to play God. Plus, it would wear us down. But then this doesn’t mean that we stop keeping others accountable. Paul tells us clearly in 1st Corinthians 5:12 “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are [we] not to judge those inside?” Therefore, as a church we are called to keep accountable those in our community who claim to be living out the teachings of Christ – as opposed to those of the world.
Yes, it does take faith and self control to let go and allow the Spirit to work, but it’s necessary. Once we learn to refrain from making the moral decisions of others, for others, and allow the spirit to work – especially those of the world – it allows God to work through others, a little at a time but full time, and turn something that we thought was going to wither and die into a beautiful tree, bearing much fruit.